Leeds Royal Armouries, Form & Function on the Battlefield

Of the rich collection of historical arms and armour displayed at the Leeds Royal Armouries museum, an aspect of the subject which may often be overlooked is the simple (or not so simple) clothing that was worn to battle.

Interspersed with swords, muskets and suits of armour, the collection holds many beautifully preserved garments, spanning five centuries of military history – they reflect the social climate of their time through their influence by, and influence upon peacetime fashions.

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Among the English Civil War (1642-1651) exhibit is a Parliamentarian buff coat,  attributed to Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes (1608-1669). Compared to other ‘rank-and-file’ coats in the museum’s display, the officer’s coat is of considerably greater quality – not necessarily in the quality of materials used, but moreso in the complexity of construction and the ease of comfort it affords the wearer.

A key feature of the officer’s buff coat is its cutoff sleeves and inset cuffs. The arm is cut very wide from the scye to the forearm and vented along the inside seam at the elbow; a second sleeve-piece is inserted, extending from the the elbow and tapering close to the wrist – buttoned with at least five small ball-buttons along the outside seam. When compared to typical coats of the period; with wide, closed sleeves of a simple two-piece construction; one can appreciate the trade-off here between mobility and protection. The unusual construction of Fiennes’ coat therefore signifies an investment in functionality above form, at a time when Upper Ranks were generally more concerned with finery than practicality.

In contrast, military uniforms of the early 18th century had mostly foregone notions of clothing as protection – as musketry and line-infantry tactics surpassed the use of sword and pike, armies accepted the obsolescence of unwieldy armour. In response to the smoke, noise and confusion of modern warfare, uniforms became rationalised and gaudy. This coat, attributed to the Battle of Blenheim (1704), is an example of the bright colouration of uniform coats that dominated 18th and 19th century military fashion. The War of Spanish Succession (1702-1714) and the Great Northern War (1700-1721) introduced a new school of military thought, based on the psychological effects of fighting men. Uniformity implies discipline; and discipline implies battle prowess.

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The museum’s Waterloo exhibit features a life-size diorama of a French cuirassier surrendering to a Private soldier of the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot in the final moments of the battle. In truth, soldiers would be instructed to leave their knapsacks in camp or on a baggage train when preparing to go to battle, so a Private at Waterloo likely wouldn’t have been burdened by their heavy ‘Marching Order’ during the fighting of the day. Still, the inclusion of a knapsack and rolled greatcoat in the diorama helps illustrate the reality that soldiers of all ranks carried their lives on their backs.

In today’s world, it would seem nigh suicidal to march on the battlefield in such brightly coloured clothing, but in centuries past, battle was a spectacle of performance and the uniform of battle was nothing less than a costume for its performers. The ‘actors’ in great conflicts all had a role to play, as the ‘audience’ too are occasioned to know their host.

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